Friday, July 17, 2009

Why "Fireproof" is Immoral

An old family friend recently wrote me regarding my previous rant about the movie "Fireproof", wanting me to know that some of her friends had watched it and had told her that it had some good points in it that had helped their marriages. She suggested that maybe I ought to just take it for what it is intended to be - an accessible sermon with a few good points.

I can't do that, though. Once you put a piece of "Art" out into the public sphere you enter the highly contentious world of art criticism, about which everyone has opinions, some of them quite firm and granite-like. "Taking it for what it is" would essentially be to quash my own side of the public debate.

So why is it such an issue for me? I really don't have a problem with the existence of poor art, after all. I won't invade your kitchen and tear up that atrocious paint-by-number your grandmother butchered. I think there is a very important and valuable place for art by the masses. It's just that I think there ought to be a different standard for art that is for the masses, and it pains me to see how nominal Christians tend to elevate crappy art thrown into this sphere to the place of higher quality art, raving about how amazing it is when anything more than a cursory glance shows its obvious flaws.

The end result is that anybody not in "The Club" is turned off to all Christian art, writing and film - even the good stuff - and the name of Christ gets impugned. Art is my thing, and my ability to strive to be heard as a legitimate artistic voice, capable of doing something positive, is seriously limited by the elevation of bad art.

As Madeleine L'Engle says, "Bad art is bad theology".

I am absolutely for people's marriages being helped - marriage is hard, obviously, and anything that keeps families healthy is a good thing - but a movie like"Fireproof" only works if you agree, ahead of time, that things like quality and excellence and truth do not matter as long as your point is made. I absolutely don't buy that - and tend to think that it is the sort of underlying attitude that says it's OK to bomb hospitals and children if you get rid of a dictator in the process. Whenever you put principles and making a point ahead of the truth, you do violence to the world and betray the name of Christ.

To give one very simple example, let's just look at the characterization of the protagonist, Caleb Holt, who starts the movie as a non-Christian fire fighter. The people who made this movie have a view of humanity in which they see anyone not in The Christian Club as somehow less than human. They see no need, therefore, to portray Caleb as anything other than a two-dimensional cutout on a flannelgraph. Caleb is not real. In a a screaming match with his wife, for example, he calls her all sorts of names, but never any really, really angry ones. He has been sanitized flat into a person who won't swear even when he's really, really mad - something unrealistic and inhuman even for someone in The Club. Granted, this may have more to do with their need to put on the blinders and sanitize the world, but lying about what people are really like is not just wrong, it's hateful, and it's not something you will ever find in the Bible.

A better example, perhaps, would be the ridiculous portrayal of Caleb Holt's pornography problem. He is depicted as looking at porn openly in front of his wife, despite her obvious anger about it, and he seems to feel no guilt, shame, or a desire to hide. As anyone who's ever dealt with this problem in any way knows, this is an inhuman depiction. The only conclusion I can reach is that the filmmaker's believe that people who aren't in The Christian Club are somehow sub-human, which is nothing less than an act of hate and bigotry, because it posits the inferiority of another people group. To suggest that those who aren't like us aren't really human in the way we are - like, for example, that they don't feel guilt or shame - is absolute horse manure.

We are, all of us, in the same boat. All of us. And when we pretend that those not in our club are fundamentally inferior, we are left in the position of maintaining the illusion of our own superiority - a vocation in which we will inevitably fail.

Bad acting and bad filmmaking are not just bad, they are wrong, because they increase the level of deception in the world and make it harder not just for people in The Christian Club to acknowledge the common humanity in everybody else, but also the humanity in themselves. They perpetuate a world of make-believe which inevitably leads to public and private failure.

As a big Jesus fan, I find it embarrassing and increasingly painful to watch The Name get dragged through the "Christian" night dirt.

"Fireproof" may be fabulous as an accessible sermon to show to your church (which I obviously doubt), but it is absolutely terrible as a movie with which to flood the Americanadian market in the name of Christ. Even if it does have some good points (which, I think, it does), it would be far less hateful and more worthwhile to list them in a one-page document and send me an email. This would keep down the level of immorality in the world and save me a valuable hour and a half, which I could then spend burning and censoring all the bad "Christian" "Art" I could find.


  1. Josh, I do agree that most "Christian" art/movies/music/etc are poorly done and the Christian society has lowered the standards and accepted the lesser quality "entertainment" for the sake of it being Christian. It is sad to say, but I was pleasantly surpised recently when my husband and I attended a Christian coaches conference. I was expecting it to be mediocre. But the conference was first class, well done and totally professional. It is a shame to think that something will be poorly done just because it is a Christian event...but it's the truth.
    However, where I think you are wrong is comparing the mediocre performance of Fireproof to be the same as bombing a hospital and killing of innocent children just to rid the dictator- as long as the point is made. That is a poor example. The movie Fireproof was made with good intentions and motives- the bombing of a hospital is done with malice, rage and anger- there is no comparison! And secondly, as for your discription of Caleb, did you even watch the movie? He did watch his porn in secret and was shamed by it...but like most wives of husbands who are addicted to porn she knew. And I personally know many non-Christian men who do not cuss at all- ever, even in heated arguments with their wives and I know many Christian men who do. That point has nothing to do with being Christian or non-Christian it has to do with the individual person and their temperment and moral (not Christain) standards.
    And lastly, I will confess that my husband refused to watch this movie for over a year for many different reasons but mostly for the ones you stated above. I never pressured him to watch it and when he went out and rented it for us to watch I was totally surprised. We laughed through most of it because of the bad acting (although Kirk Cameron did a good job) but at the end we had some good discussions on our marriage and relationship.
    You are right, marriage is hard and it takes a lot of work and energy to have a good healthy relationship. But if a low budget, sub par, bad acting movie can help and encourage and some struggling relationships and strengthen some marriages by causing them to take a deeper look and discuss issues that get forgotten about in the busy life of work and kids (like it did for us) then to God be the Glory! Katie (Smith) Ainsley
    p.s. excuse any spelling or grammatical errors. I am not a writer!

  2. Wow, you didn't hold back on this one Josh! There are a lot of points here that I don't agree with but don't care to take up with you. There is on item however that I'd like to point out. Even though making the argument forces me to agree with your overall point that this film is not up to par, I still need to make it - just to see what you think about it.
    As you know I've had my own production company for about five years now. I'm still small, but not nearly as small as I was when I started. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that doing great work is VERY expensive. Even at my small level, It's amazing how pricy projects get if I want to do them right. Although I've learned a lot technically, I still think I had the same artistic ability when I was only doing wedding videos - but I didn't have the resources to do differently. Now, with some larger clients that have funded documentaries etc.. I have the money to use the equipment I need - hire the voice talent I need etc.. to make it good.
    So here's my point - The Christian filmmaking community is the little guy. As bad as this film is, it's the farthest we've made it so far into mainstream awareness. And although I completely understand the integrity of the voice that says "if we can't do it right, we won't do it at all" - in the end that won't get us anywhere. I don't know the intentions, heart, or mindset of the folks who made fireproof, but if we're lucky enough to have some real artists - they now have a MUCH larger budget to work with for whatever comes next. Real money for REAL actors, Real money for REAL screenwriters, Real money for REAL equipment to up the production value. I hate the crap we have to put up with on the way, but as much as I hate it, I know it has to happen. Sure, there are the occasional Billy Bob Thornton's out there who can Write, Direct, and star in Slingblade and blow us all away - but even he had almost twice the budget as Fireproof to pull off the other details - the right supporting actors, music, locations etc...
    Movie making is not a one-man game. It's huge in scope and to pull off an artistic piece worth our praise takes ridiculous resources - resources that the Christian community has not had available before now. So where do we go from here? I sure hope they don't break up the revenue from Fireproof to make 15 other half-baked movies. I really, really did not enjoy fireproof for nearly all the reasons you mentioned, but I understand how difficult it is on limited funds. NOW it's up to them to step up to the plate. I think there are some GREAT story's that we can tell - and there are GREAT artists in every facet who are needed to make a great film. Now these guys should have the money to bring them on board.
    for what it's worth...
    by the way - if you loved Ender's Game, have you read his new release called Ender in Exile? It's an immediate follow up to Enders Game and now my second favorite in this fantastic series...

  3. Rob, have you seen "To End All Wars"? That's a movie made by a Christian guy that I think has a beautiful message about Grace and Forgiveness. I actually heard about it first in my grandmother's "Charisma" magazine (in many ways a deplorable publication)and finally saw it a few years later.

    It's brilliant, it's touching, it's real. It also obviously had a pretty good budget and didn't pretend to be a "Christian film". I think the problem is not that Christians can't make good films, or that there isn't money there for it, it is that Christians dichotomize the world into "sacred" versus "secular" in order to make it both safer and more controllable. The results are, as you say, often laughable.

    My Christian filmmaker friend in California made a documentary about an animate shopping cart that tried to return a blanket to a little boy. It was funny, smart and beautifully made. It was touching. You really FELT for that shopping cart. To say that his work is less good or sacred because it's just about a shopping cart is damnable heresy.

    My point is that you as a filmmaker ought to put making "Christian" films out of your mind. Just be an amazing filmmaker. If you're as honest as you can be, and you really do love and strive to follow Christ, that will come through in your work. If you're faking it, your work will be fake.

    I don't think Hollywood is all that against Christian films, I think it is against Christian propaganda pieces. The way in is just to make better, more honest stories, and to continue to make them even after you start making money. People liked Veggie Tales so much at the start because they really were fun, and funny. People stopped liking the show "Ellen" because Ellen Degeneres got unfunny and started shilling for the gay agenda instead of doing her job, which was to be smart and entertaining.

    I haven't read "Ender in Exile" yet. I look forward to it - I love Card's work. His Alvin Maker series is just a beautiful depiction of what it means to be an artist.

    Also, I HIGHLY recommend picking up "Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community" by Wendell Berry and reading the chapter entitled "Christianity and the Survival of Creation". It rocks my world and speaks directly to the issue.

  4. Katie, I realize that I was a little too obscure with my bombing reference. Someone already facebooked me with a complaint, so I'm going to comment here with my response to that issue.

    First, though, I want to answer to the issue she raised with my advocating swearing in the film:

    I guess I'm just friends with different kinds of people than she is - if I was going to honestly depict the people I know in real life, I would include swearing for sure. And I wouldn't want to stop being friends with someone or stop listening to their story just because they often swore.

    I don't think that the lead in that movie should swear more so that I can despise him more as the bad guy - I want him to swear more so that he can be real, so that I can love him better. You cannot love an illusion. A firefighter not living under the moral strictures of any religion is almost certainly going to swear. That means if he doesn't, he isn't very real and I can't love him. If I can't love the characters in a work of art (yes, even the broken ones), it is not a good work of art.

    It isn't what comes out of a man that makes him unclean, but what's in his heart. "Swearing" and "unclean language" are two totally different things. Some people say certain "dirty" words not to defile anything, but because it is the culture they've been raised in. Meanings to words are culturally ascribed - they are not inherent in the sounds - and most people I know do not live in the missionary culture in which I was raised. It would be stupid to have swearing for the sake of swearing, but it is ridiculous to pretend like people don't swear.

    I have known a number of people who swear like banshees but are more loving and Christ-like than a number of other people I know who very carefully do not swear, all the while doing other horrible things like gossiping and having contempt and even molesting small children. It isn't what is on the outside that counts, so I don't see why sanitizing things improves the discussion.

    I live in the south now, where people say things like, "He's just the most dishonest, sneakiest little weasel of a guy that I've ever met... Bless his heart." And from my limited perspective I would much rather never hear that sort of candy-coated foolishness ever again, even if it meant listening to some real friends of mine who have said things like, "Josh, you little fucker, I love you, man". I LOVE that those friends loved me and trusted me enough to tell me they loved me, and weren't too afraid of being judged to do so. It means I'm not quite as much the idiot-stick pharisee I once was. I can't judge anybody's heart, but I'm certainly done forever with putting a premium on something as shallow as not swearing.

    The Bible is full of reality, and I think that the medium of film should reflect that. If you're making a film about an alcoholic, for example, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't have someone vomiting. It is not the actions of the characters in a work of art that are important, it is what the work asserts to be true about those actions. If a movie glorifies vomiting that's one thing, but to deny that vomiting exists just to make it more pleasant to watch??? Ridiculous.

    Some aspects of life are unpleasant. Half the appeal of the Bible to me is that it doesn't mince words and doesn't whitewash lives - because it's not about how well-behaved everybody is, but rather about the amazing things God does through broken, poorly-behaved people. If that weren't the case, I'd have to abandon hope immediately.

    Heroes of the Faith in the Bible include Prostitutes, Murderers, Incesters (my word), Doubters, Liars and Cheats. They were real people. Jesus himself used some pretty strong language when dealing with religious hypocrites.


  5. contd...

    Switching gears to address that other point, I wasn't saying that bombing a hospital was exactly the same as making a poor movie - all analogies are imperfect, anyways - just that killing innocents echoes a destructive attitude in poor propaganda/art-making that says "ends justify means".

    Saying that it's OK to make terrible, lying art and elevate it to a place of honor if it says some true things is, to my mind, similar to saying it's OK to kill a lot of innocent people on foreign soil and glorify the military if by doing so you get rid of a dictator and secure our oil supply. They are not the same thing, but they come from the same sort of attitude - that of arrogant superiority. It is NEVER cool to bomb hospitals and/or kill innocent children. It is ALWAYS horrendous and any time one human kills another, I swear a hole is ripped in the fabric of the universe.

    You can argue that sometimes something horrible needs to be done with great sorrow for the greater good (although I do find such arguments fairly thin in light of what Jesus taught about forgiving people who do evil to you), but the moment you stop feeling the horror at it that you feel towards the killing of people who are more like you is the moment you jump over onto the wrong side of the fence. People who demand justice NEVER know what they're asking for.

    I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but until I changed my mind about these sorts of things, I was a VERY unloving person, who objectified everyone who didn't "behave" into very small boxes in which they did not fit. This was hateful violence, and I'm done with it. If you're capable of loving people without this sort of shift in thinking, then so much more the better for you. It's probably a lot more pleasant for you than having to do what I've done and face the dirt bag I've become.

    As for me, I am tired of being a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal.

    I quit.

    As to Kirk Cameron being a good actor, I submit to you the test put forward by one of my favorite bloggers: Leonardo DiCaprio was in the show "Growing Pains" with Kirk Cameron when they were both teenagers.

    DiCaprio developed into a talented, good actor. Go on and take a run through DiCaprio's filmography and try to envision Cameron in those roles. If you can do it, you have a better imagination than I.

  6. Josh, thanks for the response. I'll think on this and try to remember to respond. I'll check out the book you mentioned. I LOVE the Alvin Maker series by card. One of my favorite series ever. I also read the 'homecoming' series by Card and found it fascinating - and just last month a book called 'Hot Sleep' by Card that actually had me thinking while reading it, "I wonder what Josh would think about this..."
    on a completely different vein, I just read a book by a writer and commentator I actually really admire named Christopher Hitchens. He's a pretty honest and brilliant guy - but also an Atheist. His book is called 'God is not Great - how religion poisons everything.' If you ever get your hands on it, I'd love to hear how you'd respond to some of his arguments. Thanks as always for the great writing - keep it up!

  7. Ok Josh,
    I think I can agree with you more in your clarification post than your original one...or maybe I just understand where you are coming from better. One thing we can both agree on is that the movie was cheesy and had poor acting. I will however not bend on my belief that even though it was a cheesy movie with poor acting it had a good message. Marriage is hard. It takes a lot of hard work. It takes two dedicated people to make it work. And if one gives up then the other should step it up a notch and do everything in their power to not let the marriage fail.
    I do feel that I need to clarify one more thing...I never said that Kirk Cameron was a good actor... I just said he did a good job- which in comparison to the others is very true! I have to agree with you that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the best all time actors (he's my husband favorite) I think Tom Hanks is pretty good too. But I have to think (based on a few articles I've read years ago and the life he's chosen to live) that Kirk Cameron has not pursued the typical Hollywood acting career as his fellow Growing Pains cast members.
    Anyways we don't have to agree on everything or even anything. Your posts are very well written and very well thought through. I enjoy reading them even if I disagree! I hope you and your family are doing well! Katie

  8. how can you separate the "creators" of this "higher quality art" from the masses? I mean, who then makes up this pretentious party of high quality art producers? you? I just don't see where you come off thinking you are the King Tut of art criticism that can classify such things as Fireproof as BAD. This is not a personal foul to you, my friend, I just think it may be a itsy bitsy bittle bit PRETENTIOUS to say that Fireproof is immoral because it communicates art in a different way than you yourself values.

  9. Ha, ha, ha! Whomever that last "anonymous" was - I LOVE You! You made my day. "King Tut of art criticism"? That is pure literary gold. If I was the King Tut of art criticism, I'd peel off my face, melt it down, and sell it to the Chinese. Thanks for the smiles.

  10. king tut was a relatively insignificant pharaoh in egyptian history. he's only a big deal to us because we found his tomb intact.

    so maybe that last anonymous was saying you're the "only significant when you're dead" guy of art criticism.

    which sounds like a threat to me.


  11. May I humbly suggest, since I don't know you or follow your blog (so I can't tell the overall spirit of this), that in reading this post, I found your message to be remarkably similar to the content of "Fireproof": thought provoking and therefore valuable, but rather histrionic, and 1 dimensional in its characterizations.

    For instance, the use of language is generally thematic in any cinematic work. The church that created this movie have a goal for people in mind... namely to communicate a better way to live, and they do that holistically, by not including swear words, among other things. You say that is unrealistic, based on the real people you know. Then you need to meet more people, because I live in the Bible belt, where this was made, and I can assure you, non-Christians like this exist. Also, if you say that Caleb needs to swear to portray anger, then you clearly don't think much of any older movies, which is sad. For me, I think this actually highlights a characteristic of Caleb in the movie... he is generally an upstanding guy (or so he thinks), not realizing there is far more than superficial morality.

    Also, you say the way the pornography is portrayed shows a need to dehumanize non-Christians. I think you're wrong there. I think the aim is show that PORNOGRAPHY dehumanizes people. It's about what that sexual indulgence outside of marriage can become. And if you think that shamelessness is so out of character, then, again, you have too limited a scope of friends. I've experienced a range of reactions to pornography from the shamefaced indulgence of one caught and knowing it, to unconcern or even pride. And yes, these are married people too.

    There ARE a host of things I dislike with the film... most notably, I think the writing and directorial instruction really is what makes this movie often hackneyed. But, I'm sorry, if you want to make this a moral issue, then I think you are guilty of similar faults, and since you are making this public for all, I hope you will repent.

  12. May I humbly respond (herk, herk) by saying, Jon, that I find that people who use the word "repent" in that manner (like, say, by suggesting that someone else do it) are a wee bit silly. Or, maybe not silly, but certainly interesting.

    I used to live in Vancouver, and there was a street woman who would write "Repent, Sinner" in permanent marker on 3" X 6" pieces of corrugated plastic and then leave them around the city. They were considered collector's items. I found one once, and a friend of mine had one framed on his wall. Off topic, of course, but I tend to think that people who walk around telling other people to repent are either A. a little bit crazy, B. desperately trying not to think about what they need to repent of, or C. possibly right. Let's just hope, for your sake, that you fit in the latter category.

    I guess I'll try to answer a couple of your points, and we'll see if I think I need to repent. First, the assertion that the aim is to show that pornography dehumanizes people. It would be very important in any such discussion to define a term as loaded as "dehumanize", because I would argue that while pornography tends to show human sexuality in a way that is a dimunition of authentic sexuality, it doesn't actually "dehumanize" anyone. Pornography is a part of what it means in our world to be human. The problem with that movie is that it implies that people who do not say the magic words or believe precisely the way we do are somehow less than human. This, to me, is an anti-Christian sentiment.


  13. cont'd from above...

    As for the value of old movies, the fact is that I have watched a great many more of them than most everyone I know. I was raised in a missionary community, and that's all we had. I enjoyed them, and I value them for what they are. This does not, however, blind me to what I believe to be the truth: that they are not, generally speaking, excellent works of art. In their need to paint a saccharine view of humanity palatable to a closeted society of pretenders, they always end up somewhat two-dimensional (which is one more dimension than you'll grant to me). As a result, they have little power to connect on a real level, and enact real and lasting change in the viewer. This is, of course, a gross generality.

    I live in the Bible Belt myself, and I know that you don't have to swear when you're angry. Perhaps it was just the terrible acting that made me think, "man, that dude really ought to swear right there, cause this is SO fake".

    Again, I don't object to people making bad art - I myself have made some particularly noxious stuff - what I object to is a "christian" culture elevating that bad art to a lofty and exalted place. To me, this demonstrates an attitude of "win-at-all-costs", and I feel that if you have to sacrifice honesty and integrity to win, then you've lost before you have begun.

    So, hmmm. Repentance. Well, I guess I can say that I'm sorry I let my frustration get the best of me so that I go "histrionic" sometimes. As to my overall point, I'm afraid I refuse to recant. So pile the logs, toss on some pitch, and light a match.

  14. I've been trying to think of how to address this on my commute home from school. And while this can be interpreted as gamesmanship, I take it seriously. I need to ask your forgiveness. Having gone back through your post, I realized that while I agreed with your post, I got the impression that your principle complaint was in fact against the movie. I was wrong, and my mischaracterization was slanderous. Thanks for responding to help me recognize that.

    I absolutely agree with you about Christian culture making idols (because I think that's what it really becomes) out of overtly Christian films as somehow the highest form of art simply for presenting the Gospel (I would consider the quality difference between Fireproof and Luther as proof enough).

    Also, in your response, thank you for pointing out the nuanced difference in "dehumanization." My intent was dehumanizing in the sense of a diminution of God's design for humanity, including sexuality. I have no problem receiving that sense in a film simply because I think it emphasizes how horribly marred everyone is. I guess I think of porn working a universal truth through a particularly destructive means (or it certainly has been for me).

    I still think your characterization of the movie is overly harsh, but I appreciate the context more. I kind of hope as was mentioned above that this is like a child's art... the beginning of a growing skill. Personally, I'd have loved to see the same movie, with the same elements, maybe even with the same cast (though that would still hinder it) with a reworked script and strong director.

  15. Thanks, Jon. And thanks for not lighting the match. I would like to see it as child's art as well - I guess I'm just too touched by cynicism. I tend to think that the problem is deeper than just incompetence, and signals a culture that has bought into the assumptions of its milieu and is attempting to play by rules antithetical to its purpose. I think that often "secular" movies are more valuable because they are consistent, honest and truth-telling.

    "Luther" was well done, but I think a better example is "To End All Wars". Beautiful redemption story. Made by a self-proclaimed Christian dude, marketed in Christian media. Lots of cussing and violence (it was a war story). I don't think the dude's made much else worth too much time, but give it a watch.

  16. hey josh - thanks for the quick review. i haven't seen it (even though i've been bombarded by people telling me to watch it - and i'm a guy who usually will give any film it's day in court). now i know that i won't bother to waste the time. judging from the first post, i can tell i'd have the exact same opinion that you voiced, and would probably be cringing with my finger dangerously close to the 'stop' button on the remot the entire time. i'll spend it watching THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE instead. can't go wrong with robert mitchum...